Permission to Jeer

It’s clear that something has changed in conservative politics over the last decade. An exploration of pro-wrestling fandom sheds light on why.

Daniel Harnsberger is among the more famous wrestlers on the American independent circuit. In church halls, civic centers, and high school gymnasiums across the Appalachian Valley, Harnsberger wrestles under the moniker “The Progressive Liberal.” In mid-2017, a handful of prominent media outlets covered his story, framed as a curious, even whimsical development. Donning a shirt plastered with pictures of Hillary Clinton’s face, the Progressive Liberal was a villain, firing off cutting criticisms of conservatism deep in Trump country, scolding members of the audience for being stupid, and issuing threats such as “We’re coming for your guns.” Harnsberger identifies as liberal in real life, but the Virginia local also had identified a lucrative gimmick. Much to the delight of local promoters, the Progressive Liberal fired up crowds. They showered him with boos and jeers as he made his entrance; any match that ended with his defeat sent the crowd into a dizzying euphoria.

Harnsberger’s performance is quintessential kayfabe. For those uninitiated into the professional wrestling fandom, at the most basic level, kayfabe denotes the scripted, fictional element of wrestling programming. Despite presenting itself as authentic or organic, professional wrestling is in fact a curated performance in virtually every aspect, and kayfabe refers to this blurring of fact and fiction. Because kayfabe toys with the line between real and unreal, it creates a profitable space to say and do things that may otherwise be socially unacceptable, allowing for subtext and fantasy to communicate provocative and often politically incorrect ideas. In this way, kayfabe wields power far beyond the storylines of professional wrestling. It furnishes a natural theater in which to make manifest the latent wants and fears of fans, allowing them to reconcile these feelings through cathartic and uncomplicated violence.

Abraham Josephine Riesman’s recent Ringmaster: Vince McMahon and the Unmaking of America offers a rare interrogation of kayfabe’s affective politics and centrality in our national political culture. Her book details the rise of the multibillion-dollar business that is professional wrestling—the bulk of which resides with Vincent McMahon Jr.’s World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE, formerly WWF). She deftly carries readers through McMahon’s life across a half century, from his childhood in rural North Carolina to his personal and professional zenith as leader of the world’s largest “sports entertainment” brand, a moniker specifically devised to evade the legal scrutiny of sports regulation commissions. Readers encounter generational superstars of professional wrestling such as Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, all performers who appear larger than life in WWF/WWE programming but are deputized into mere pawns in McMahon’s power struggles. As Riesman exhaustively chronicles, McMahon also applied the lessons of kayfabe, and its manipulation of fantasy and reality, to how he ran his business, shrouding the truth of his company, his workers, his persona, and even his biography in curated ambiguity. Reckoning with this slippage is crucial in appreciating the success of McMahon’s product and its ascendence in the American popular consciousness.

Professional wrestling’s profitable use of kayfabe also offers a prism for understanding the trajectory of conservative politics today. Over the last decade, the conservative movement has plunged inward, relying on reaction and manipulation of the anxieties of tens of millions of Americans in service of political power. The lines delineating fact and fiction are less important than the overarching goal of eliciting conspiratorial, reactionary emotion, which translates into votes and political power. Riesman’s Ringmaster shows the limitless potential of an enterprise that can properly wield these devices—after all, McMahon has remained atop the wrestling world for nearly a half century. That is far from the only intervention Riesman makes, and it alone is important enough to make Ringmaster essential reading for anyone invested in the future of our nation’s politics.

In one sense, Riesman’s book can be read as a quintessentially American story of capitalist success. A self-proclaimed self-made man, Vince McMahon Jr., conquers the world of professional wrestling and vaults the industry to unimaginable heights, powered by hard work, cunning, and raw ambition. On the way, he becomes a genuine political power player, double-crosses and crushes longtime allies, and weathers all sorts of scandals, including coverups of steroids use, sexual assault, and child sexual abuse. Another reading highlights the decades-long familial psychodrama at the core of the McMahon story: Vince Jr. against his father, Vince Sr., a wrestling promoter absent for the first 12 years of his son’s life who reappeared in sporadic intervals throughout the rest of his teenage years. Vince Jr. grew up in an abusive household, enduring physical, emotional, and sexual violence from his stepfather’s family. By the time he graduated from college, however, he had been fully absorbed into his birth father’s wrestling business. Vince Jr.’s role in their relationship oscillates from an abandoned child desperate for paternal validation to a resentful son animated by a burning desire to upend—usurp—his father’s life work. He ultimately succeeds in dismantling the entire ecosystem of professional wrestling that his father, while absent, had cultivated and maintained.

But Riesman’s biography also illustrates how McMahon Jr. used kayfabe to exploit political zeitgeists, supercharge them with meaning, and imbue them with an affective weight beyond what wrestling alone could provide. Often, she shows, the WWF/WWE crafted performances within the context of an ongoing real-world conflict, wading into tense geopolitical waters to attract viewers and generate what the professional wrestling world calls “heat,” or the audience’s negative reaction during a match or segment. Heat, Riesman shows, is what animates storylines; it pulls in audiences and creates space for wrestling’s implicit promise of catharsis. It drives viewership, and ultimately business.

McMahon Jr. perfected the art of translating real-time political crisis into profitable heat. During his tenure, a standard wrestling storyline could position wrestlers on opposite ends of a hero-villain spectrum. For storylines implicating a geopolitical conflict, a wrestler representative of the US would be cast as moral, brave, and attractive, while a wrestler from an adversarial nation was menacing, bloodthirsty, and cruel. Riesman describes, for example, a wrestler known as Nikolai Volkoff who throughout the 1980s portrayed a Soviet villain (despite being played by a Croatian American). As political circumstances changed, however, so too did the trajectories of the characters themselves. After the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s, Volkoff’s gimmick transformed from a savage Bolshevik sadist to a freedom-loving, pro-Western hero, an avatar of the “newly freed” Russian people.

Riesman’s thorough account is filled with numerous examples, episodes in WWF/WWE history that demonstrate how the company, behind the veil of kayfabe, mobilized politics as a crutch for emotional release. And sometimes, kayfabe performances were so incendiary—and so tethered to real-life politics—that they moved audiences close to physical violence. One fascinating and instructive story is that of Sgt. Slaughter, a WWF fan favorite in the mid-1980s, best known for his loud patriotism as he battled with his rival, The Iron Sheikh, an Iranian wrestler written to be a pro-Khomeini, anti-Western villain. But Sgt. Slaughter’s return to the WWF in 1990, at the onset of the Gulf War, came as a shock to millions of fans: he flipped and turned into an Iraqi loyalist. Here, the Iraqi wrestler Adnan Al-Kaissy, known as General Adnan, becomes important as well. In real life, Al-Kaissy had been schoolmates with Saddam Hussein before growing up to become a prominent wrestler beloved across the Arab world. Al-Kaissy was recruited to wrestle for the WWF around the time of Sgt. Slaughter’s return, to build out a Gulf War-related storyline. Sgt. Slaughter pledged allegiance to General Adnan and Hussein and targeted Volkoff, among other ostensibly pro-Western wrestlers, fueled by apparent anti-American bloodlust. Robert Remus, who played Sgt. Slaughter, received incessant death threats and was forced to travel with private security. “[Vince Jr.] told me he had never seen anybody get more heat than me in all his years in the business,” Al-Kaissy told Riesman.

Freed from the potential of social reprisal or censure, wrestling fans have permission to jeer, boo, and confront head-on the anxieties that fundamentally structure their worldview.

Ringmaster’s narrative ends in the late 1990s, but Riesman’s sharp observations regarding the relationship between wrestling and politics, as mediated through kayfabe, remain deeply pertinent after the turn of the millennium. Unsurprisingly, the company wasted little time in harnessing the racist hysteria and mania that gripped the nation after 9/11. It often weaponized the fears and mainstreaming of Islamophobia in its programming, regularly dangling some sort of racialized threat to draw heat. In one infamous clip from July 4, 2005, the Undertaker, one of the WWE’s most popular wrestlers, is ambushed by five men in black face masks and military fatigues, at the behest of a rival wrestler known as Muhammad Hassan (a villain character played by Marc Copani, an Italian American from upstate New York). As the five men rush the ring and assault the Undertaker with an array of weapons, Hassan falls to his knees, raises his arms, and is seen muttering, presumably in Muslim prayer. It is never explicitly stated that these men are terrorists, but the implication is unmistakable. Two days later, actual terrorists attacked London, and the WWE came under scrutiny for this episode. Suddenly kayfabe couldn’t withstand the weight of real-life politics, which demanded a sort of sensitivity around terrorist attacks, irreconcilable with the naked racism being performed. Within weeks, McMahon dropped the segment and cut Copani from the roster.

Many of the WWE’s politically charged gimmicks of the time follow this pattern: they refrain from explicit political statements and instead frame a storyline so that a political message is conveyed through fictionalized but resonant storytelling that induces a sort of emotional reaction in viewers. In the mid-2000s, at a time of intensifying nativist discourse surrounding Mexican and Central American immigration, the WWE introduced a villain alliance called the Mexicools that served as a manifestation of conservative America’s racist, xenophobic fears about the nation’s shifting demography. Riding into the ring on a green John Deere tractor, the Mexican wrestlers drew heat from the audience in their first appearance: “Things are gonna change. We’re tired [of] working for you. Now you gringos are going to be working for us!” the group’s leader, Juventud Guerrera, snarled at an audience of angry fans. In a recent interview, Guerrera recalls disliking the gimmick, as it obviously negatively stereotyped Mexican immigrants. But Vince Jr. insisted the Mexicools would be a hit, even suggesting that they could become the brand’s top stars. Ultimately, however, they could never provide the pop that Vince Jr. envisioned. Sometimes the heat of a given storyline could recede as quickly as it manifested, and the Mexicools became just another expendable entity to Vince Jr.’s ever-nimble project. Less than six months after being signed to the WWE, Guerrera was cut from its roster.

Riesman provides the key to deciphering the subtle storytelling maneuvers that guide professional wrestling to its objective of catharsis. Kayfabe, in her telling, lies at the heart of McMahon Jr.’s program. She brilliantly elucidates how kayfabe’s plausible deniability provides a degree of cover from allegations of racism or xenophobia. Of course, McMahon Jr. could insist, the WWE wasn’t claiming that Muslims were terrorists or Mexicans were invading our country. These were just scripted storylines intended to draw heat and must not be taken literally, they’d say. But kayfabe’s blurring of fantasy and reality offers cover for McMahon Jr.’s barefaced exploitation and promotion of reactionary politics for profit.

To any fan of professional wrestling, the mechanics of the contemporary conservative political ecosystem may look eerily familiar. At its essence, it strikingly resembles kayfabe—a self-contained universe, replete with heroes and villains, embedded within a simple framework of Manichean morality. While their names and particularities may vary, the enemies remain fixed: immigrants, communities of color, working people, religious minorities, liberals, public institutions. No matter that in reality, its figureheads diverge from the lore they espouse—what matters is that they play the part. It’s a movement powered by affective reaction, built on its capacity to evoke emotion in its audience: the glee of humiliating and vanquishing opponents; the anger that follows any perceived incursion into norms, or “rights”; the fear of reimagining society in a way that jeopardizes the status quo.


Tabloid War, Class War

By Theo Wayt

Since the wave of press coverage in 2017, Harnsberger has adjusted his “Progressive Liberal” persona to shifting times. He now flaunts a photorealistic Joe Biden T-shirt and tight wrestling trunks that read “Riding with Biden.” But in his telling, the atmosphere at his events has changed entirely. The banter with the crowd, which was previously received as playful and silly, now feels combative and confrontational. “I had rocks thrown at me. A lady pulled out a lighter, tried to light my trunks on fire while they were on me. And had someone else pull out a switchblade,” he describes in an interview. On occasion, promoters elect to cancel his shows, out of fear that real violence will break out.

That professional wrestling can so seamlessly obfuscate fantasy and fact that fans are moved to violent reaction should not be surprising. Through kayfabe, wrestling can literalize and launder a political project. Freed from the potential of social reprisal or censure, its fans have permission to jeer, boo, and confront head-on the anxieties that fundamentally structure their worldview. The result is a sort of emotional transformation—and arguably a politicization—that re-entrenches the sense of precarity that undergirds a right-winger’s view of the world.

It’s clear that something has changed in conservative politics over the last decade. The movement, laden with grievance and anger, is an increasingly autonomous machine divorced from real-world conditions. Tens of millions of conservatives are beholden to whichever storyline the vast right-wing information ecosystem has decided to beam out on a given day, no matter its distance from reality. Through Riesman’s Ringmaster, we may begin to appreciate the power of kayfabe and make meaning of the conservative movement’s ostensibly singular focus on cultivating outrage—heat. Riesman’s work provides an indispensable grammar to understand these subtle dynamics and how they can wield storytelling to effect politicizing ends. icon

Featured image: Still image from WWE Smackdown! 9/11 Tribute (2001). IMDb